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Standard Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and any other characters you recognize from the show do not belong to me. They are property of Universal Studios, Renaissance Pictures, blah, blah, blahÖ Taleah, Tormis, Leah, and Sarah are mine, so please donít use them without consulting me first!

Of course, with a little persuasion from Universal Studios, I might let them borrow the story lineÖ. *GRIN*

Quick Note: This is my first attempt at writing a lengthy Xena story, so please, go easy on meÖ

Violence/Sexual Content Disclaimer: There is mention of rape, but nothing real graphic. If you canít handle a little violence, I find it hard to believe you watch Xena. As for Subtext, no more than in the show. You can look, but you wonít find much.

Disclaimer: No Amazons were harmed during the writing of this fan fiction. However, one is in serious need of an attitude adjustment.

Comments: Any and all comments or constructive criticism can be sent to:
Y02Mustang@AOL.com

Now, on with the story:


The Silent Amazon

by: C. E. Gray

 

Continues from here

Xena found the bard, who was sitting on a stump, writing on her scroll. "Any luck?" she asked, and Gabrielle jumped.

"Gods, Xena, donít scare me like that!" she said, startled.

"Sorry," said the warrior. "Any luck?" she repeated.

Gabrielle nodded. "A little. Howís Taleah?" asked the bard.

"Sheíll be all right. I found her trying to sit up on her own, which made her sick, but sheís better now. She wants to leave for the Amazon Village tomorrow, but I donít know if sheíll be able to make it. Weíll have to see how much better she is by morning," said Xena.

"She still doesnít know that Iím the Queen, does she?" asked Gabrielle, smirking.

Xena shook her head. "No, not yet," she replied.

"I wonder what sheíll do when she finds out. I mean, Iím bound to get a welcoming when we arrive, so sheíll know then," said Gabrielle, and Xena nodded.

"Why donít you fish for our dinner?" asked Xena, glancing at Gabrielle, who nodded. It was only three or four hours past noon, but Xena knew that Gabrielle usually didnít have as much luck as she did.

"All right. This time, though, Iím not leaving the lake," she said, remembering the near theft before. Xena only nodded, and took the scroll that Gabrielle handed her, and headed back to camp.

Returning to camp, the warrior found Taleah sleeping peacefully, and decided not to wake her. Chances were, sheíd be awake by dinner, anyhow. Deciding she had to do something, Xena got up to collect firewood for later in the night, and left Taleah by herself, making sure she was within earshot of the girl.

Hunting for firewood didnít do itís intended purpose; Xena still thought about Taleahís injuries. Xena had told herself she wouldnít let Taleah be hurt like that again, but she had been, and the warrior felt as though she had failed the young girl. For her to save Gabrielleís life, and Xena not be able to help her out in return, was taking itís toll on Xena.

She absentmindedly picked up twigs for an hour, before returning to check on Taleah. The girl was awake, and gingerly testing the limits of her injured legs. Her right leg seemed to be a bit better, but she could hardly move her left ankle without wincing in pain.

"How are you feeling?" Xena asked, setting the wood down by the would-be fire pit. Taleah looked up at the warrior, not surprised by her presence - she had just as good of hearing as Xena did.

"Better," Taleah replied. "That mark on my chest is actually the most painful thing right now. Itís burning; but, then again, so is my back. My left ankle still hurts, but I donít think my right leg is quite as bad as it looks. Sorry," she said, seeing the pained look on Xenaís face. "I usually donít complain like this."

Xenaís eyes focused, she had been in with her own thoughts. "No, thatís all right. I need to know whatís wrong so I know what to do about it. I was just thinking, thatís all," she said, to reassure Taleah that it wasnít her fault.

"Xena?" asked Taleah, gaining the warriorís attention.

"Yeah?" she replied.

"Can you hand me my staff? No, no, Iím not going anywhere. Are you nuts?! I just feel better knowing I can reach it," she said, noticing the Xenaís reluctant look. Nodding, Xena brought the staff to Taleah, who grasped it gratefully and laid it by her side.

"How long have you been working with it?" asked Xena.

"Eight or nine summers now, I guess," replied Taleah. "Do you think Gabrielle will tell more stories tonight? Sheís a really good bard," she added.

"Yes, she is. Youíll have to ask her about it, but Iím sure she will. She loves to tell them," said Xena, and began to stack the wood for the fire. By the time they had a good fire going, Gabrielle was back with three fish, holding them triumphantly.

"Dinner!" she announced, beaming. She cleaned them quickly, cooked them, and then added some of the herbs in Taleahís pouch. The spices once again enhanced the flavor, and they devoured the food.

"Will you tell some more stories tonight, please?" Taleah asked, sitting up, and leaning gently against a tree.

"Sure," said Gabrielle, smiling. "I know!" she said, and began her tale. Xena had left as soon as Gabrielle had agreed, claiming to do a perimeter check. Gabrielle knew how much Xena didnít like to hear about her own victories, so she wasnít offended by the warriorís exit.

Gabrielle told only one story, it was one she had been editing, before going to bed early. Xena returned two hours later, surprised to see Gabrielle already in bed, and Taleah still awake.

Xena sat down next to Taleah, even more surprised to see her with a tear-stained face. "Taleah, whatís wrong?" she asked, putting a gentle hand on the girlís shoulder.

"Nothing," Taleah sniffed. "Gabrielleís story just made me remember some things." Drying her eyes, Taleah said, "Iím sorry, Xena."

"For what? For crying?" asked Xena, bewildered.

Taleah shook her head. "No," and she put her hand on the warriorís arm, "Gabrielle told me about Hope and Solan."

"Oh," was all Xena said. A cloud passed over her eyes, but didnít remain long, as Xena pushed the pain away until later.

"Itís all right," said Taleah. "I know how you feel." Xena rose an eyebrow in skepticism. "I know what itís like to lose a child," she clarified.

"You have a child?" Xena asked, eyebrow lowering and face growing serious. She was whispering in surprise.

"A daughter," said Taleah. "Oh, donít look so surprised, Xena," she said. "Yes, I have a daughter. Sheíd be four winters old, now."

"Where is she?" she asked.

"IÖ I donít know," said Taleah, the tears returning. "I left her with some very good friends of mine, in a village not too far from here, where she would be safe. But I went to see her a month ago, and the village had been burned to the ground by raiders. There were no survivors, but I didnít find her body. So, I donít know what happened to her," she finished, and stopped crying when Xena asked her next question

"Why didnít you leave her with her father?" Xena asked, softly.

"I canít. I donít know who her father is," stated Taleah. Both of Xenaís eyebrows rose in surprise, wondering just what this girl had done for there to be so many possibilities, that she didnít know the father of her own child. "No, not like that," she said, seeing Xenaís face.

"It was four summers after my father died, and I needed warmer clothes. I found a man who had some extras, so I was going to give him the only thing I had with me at the time - my staff. He didnít want the staff, he said, but I told him I didnít have anything else to give him. He wanted me toÖ well, to give myself to him, and I wouldnít. The man got angry, and beat me, before he raped me. I never knew his name," finished Taleah.

"Iím sorry," said Xena, "I shouldnít have assumed. Does sheÖ Does she know?"

"Yes, she knows Iím her mother. I spend a few days with her when I can, and then I tell her she has to visit her Aunt Leah and her Uncle Tormis. Theyíre not really her Aunt and Uncle, she just calls them that. Itís hard for her to leave me, not nearly as hard as it is for me to leave her, but it has to be done. We sacrifice anything for our love," said Taleah, and Xena nodded, mutely.

"Does Gabrielle know?" asked Xena.

"No," said Taleah. "She thought I was just crying because of the emotions in her story. And it was a very good story, but that wasnít why I was crying," she said. "Now, if itís all right, Iíd like to get some sleep. I hope to leave for the Amazon Village tomorrow," said Taleah, and Xena nodded.

"Good night," she said.

"Good night, Xena," said Taleah. She laid down on her own, but Xena stayed right beside her, in case she needed help.

The warrior slept lightly, secretly a little glad that her nightmares woke her up, because it gave her a chance to check on her companions. She didnít want anything else to happen.

Once when she awoke, it wasnít because of her nightmares. She heard Taleah murmuring in her sleep. "NoÖ no, you canít," she said, softly.

"HeyÖ" said Xena, just as softly. Xena had slept closer to the girl then the previous nights, so all she had to do was turn her head and sit up a little to see the girl. "Taleah," she said, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. Giving it one light shake, the girl awoke.

"No!" she said, awakening with a start. "Xena?" she asked, willing her heart to stop racing as she realized it had been a dream.

"Yeah," she said. "That must have been some dream."

At this Taleah started to cry lightly in the remaining memories of her vivid dream. "He came backÖ and I didnítÖ and ArgoÖ but I couldnítÖ" she babbled.

"ShhÖ" said Xena, "itís all right now. Argoís okay," she soothed.

"Have to see her," she said, and struggled to sit up, but a wave of pain caught her off guard, not so subtly reminding her of her injured ribs. "Ugh," she grunted, and laid back down, frustrated.

Whistling, Xena startled Taleah. A few moments later, Argo lumbered into the campsite. Nudging her new friend, she made Taleah smile as she blew a gust of hot horse breath into her hair.

"Hey, girl," she said, patting her neck as the horse bent down, "glad to know youíre okay." Then the mare wandered over to where Xena was sitting, and nuzzled her. The warrior whispered something into her ear, and Argo snorted.

"Good girl," said Xena, petting the horse on the nose. Obediently, Argo stood next to Taleah, and stayed. Xena had asked the mare to stay in the campsite.

"Thanks," said Taleah, to both Xena and Argo.

"Will you be able to get back to sleep?" Xena asked, and at Taleahís nod, the warrior rolled back over, and attempted to rest.

Taleah awoke twice more with a nightmare haunting her. Xena heard the next one, as she wasnít yet asleep, and was able to stop it before it got too bad, but it was enough to wake Gabrielle.

"No, donít!" Taleah had said, and then she had raised her voice in a wail of pain. "No, please!" she shouted. That was what had awakened Gabrielle.

"Taleah?" she asked, groggily. "Are you okay?" Xena quickly woke the girl, and Gabrielle repeated her question, to which Taleah nodded her reply. Not much later, Gabrielle had fallen back asleep, and Xena decided to talk with Taleah, if she wanted.

"What happened?" Xena asked, a hand on Taleahís shoulder. The girl had seemed to be calmed down, but when Xena mentioned the horrible nightmare again, she broke down crying.

"Oh, Gods," she wept, unable to control her tears. She grasped to keep her voice under control, and was glad when it didnít wake the bard, again. Without thinking, she leaned into the support that Xena offered.

Xena, a little surprised by the move, recovered without a flinch, and wrapped her arms softly around the girl. "What is it, Taleah?" she whispered.

"My daughter," she muttered. "They took her, and me, and made me watchÖ" she said, letting her voice trail off as the tears wracked her body roughly.

"No," said Xena, "no. That was only a dream. Itís okay, now." The warrior held the young girl and stroked her hair, until her breathing steadied. Then, lying her back down slowly, she let her sleep.

The last nightmare was not long after, another one about Argo. This didnít seem to affect Taleah as bad as the first one, but Xena still felt bad. Maybe if she had just searched more for her horse, none of this would have happened. With the last dream over, Taleah slept soundly through what was left of the night. Argo left a little before dawn, looking for her water down by the lake.

The next morning, Xena and Taleah awoke before Gabrielle - of course. "Morning, Princess," said Taleah, smiling perfectly. Her eye was almost completely healed, and she could see quite well out of it. The dreams were not forgotten, but she had more important things to think about now, and would wait until later to relieve the pain in her heart.

"Good morning," said Xena. "How do you feel?"

"Pretty good, actually," she replied. "I think I can stand, and with a little help, probably get on Argo."

"Well, if youíre so set about it, I guess Iíll saddle up Argo," said Xena. "You get the task of waking up the bard."

Taleah smiled. "Iíll give it a try," she said. Xena walked into the clearing, to brush and saddle Argo, and Taleah tried to wake the still sleeping Gabrielle. "Gabrielle! Hey, Gabrielle, wake up!" she said, and Gabrielle moaned.

"Taleah?" she mumbled.

"Yeah," she responded. "Come on, time to get up!"

Gabrielle peeked out of one eye. "Itís dawn," she observed, and Taleah chuckled.

"So? Weíre heading out for Amazon Territory!" she said, excited.

"Oh, all right. But if Xena told you to get me up at dawn, Iím gonna kill her!" she said, sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

"Youíll do what?" challenged Xena, leading a fully equipped Argo into the campsite.

"Nothing!" Gabrielle chirped, sweetly. She quickly got their things together, and loaded them onto Argo. Running down to the lake for a last minute refill of the water skins, she left Xena and Taleah at the campsite.

"All right, letís give this a shot," said Taleah, and Xena walked over to her side. Putting her hands on her upper arms, she gave support to the struggling girl, and Taleah leaned on her staff. Getting to her right foot wasnít so bad, but standing on the left one seemed to be painful.

Xena slipped a bracing arm around Taleahís waist, careful not to hurt her ribs or back, and draped one of the girlís arms over her broad shoulders. Taleah did her best with the staff, and finally made it over to Argo.

"Hey, girl," she said, patting the horseís neck, "I made it. Now, all I have to do is get on," she said. Xena took her gently by the waist, lifted her up, and Taleah pulled herself into the saddle by her arms.

"Comfy?" Xena asked, and Taleah grinned.

"Oh, yeah, I could just fall asleep up here," she said, sarcastically. Her left ankle throbbed from the prolonged time of being in one position, but other than that, she was doing fairly well.

"Ready to go?" Gabrielle asked, returning from the lake with full water skins. Taleah and Xena both nodded, and Gabrielle quickly cleaned the campsite. They started off, with Xena leading Argo by the reins, Taleah riding Argo, and Gabrielle walking next to Xena with her staff in hand.

Gabrielle spent the day talking with Taleah, and Xena just listened to their conversation, offering an occasional word or two. They made fairly good time, although with Taleah on Argo, it slowed them down a little. At this rate, with Argo unable to gallop with her cargo, it would take them longer than usual to make the trek to the Amazons.

Taleah was the one who spotted the campsite, and her choice pleased Xena. The area was almost hidden from view with trees and shrubs, and would do well to block the chilled wind that had picked up. The women entered the campsite, and Gabrielle immediately began to unpack the eating utensils - hinting that she was hungry and it was time for dinner.

"You refill the water skins," said Xena, to Gabrielle, "weíll get settled here, and then Iíll find dinner. Howís that sound?" she asked. There was no reply from the bard, who was already on her way down to the stream. "OkayÖ" drawled Xena, reaching up to take Taleah gently around the waist. Taleah swung her right foot over the saddle, and let Xena set her softly on her feet.

The trio hadnít stopped all day, so Taleah hadnít had much weight on her legs. With the sudden impact, however slight, her left ankle buckled, and she collapsed into Xenaís arms.

"Whoa, there," said Xena, holding the girl until she could find her footing. "You okay?" she asked. Only when Taleah nodded did she release her hold.

"Thanks," said Taleah, brushing her hair out of her face. She helped Xena unpack; rather, she handed things to Xena, making sure she didnít have to move her feet, and they were soon finished. Then, leaning on her staff and Xenaís arm, Taleah made it over to the side of a tree, where she would be most comfortable. She would sleep there, too, as she didnít feel up to walking around just yet.

Gabrielle came back in a few minutes with the water, and Xena wasnít gone long, before she returned with rabbit for dinner. They ate in a comfortable silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Gabrielle thinking of what story to tell, Xena thinking of her failure to Taleah, and Taleah thinking of her daughter. As soon as she was finished, Xena rose, and left the campsite for the evening. She needed time to think things through, and knew Gabrielleís stories would keep Taleah entertained.

Before she began, Gabrielle stoked the fire, as it was completely dark, except for the small amount of moonlight through the trees. Then, she told Taleah the story of Prometheus, and how Xena and Hercules rescued him. She was encouraged by Taleahís riveted look throughout the whole story, but proclaimed to be too tired for any more, and went to bed early.

Taleah didnít mind, she had things to think about, like her daughterís possible death, and her upcoming visit to the Amazon Village.

No, how about we just think about the Amazon Village, hmm? Taleah asked herself. No need to think aboutÖ the other, just yet. Focusing on the Amazons, Taleah wondered what she would have to do to get in. Maybe she could show her moves to an Amazon, before she talked to the Queen, so she would know if she even had a chance. If a warrior didnít like her, she knew the Queen wouldnít even want to bother.

Xena came back a while later, having cooled down after her workout. She had purposely exerted herself to her fullest extent, straining her hearing to pick up the slightest sound, still angry with herself for not hearing Taleah leave, or the man approach. She found Taleah deep in thought, and wondered what she was thinking about. The news of Taleahís daughter had been sudden and surprising, but Xena understood when Taleah didnít want to talk about it. She doubted Gabrielle knew, and Xena wouldnít tell her, unless Taleah asked her. Xena understood that secret.

"How are you feeling?" Xena asked, sitting next to Taleah, as she stared at the fire.

"Better," said Taleah. "I think Iíll walk some tomorrow." Xena was about to protest, but then realized how much this girl was like her. No way would Xena just lie around, she would test her limits as soon as possible, and no one could tell her otherwise. She kept her suggested wait to herself.

"Weíll get started early. Youíd better get some sleep," said Xena, and Taleah nodded. The warrior helped her to lay down - or, more accurately, watched her, as Taleah insisted on doing it on her own - and then said good night.

"Good night, Xena," said Taleah, her eyes closed already.

Xena smiled slightly. The day had been hard on the girl, but only because the night before had been worse. "Good night," she said, and laid down not more than three feet from either sleeping girl.

Taleah hadnít been asleep for more than an hour, when she found herself in another nightmare. It was about her daughter, and the raiders. The raiders had captured them, and were forcing Taleah to watch, as they slowly tortured her little girl. No matter how much she screamed and fought, they wouldnít stop. She couldnít break away from their grasp, but at the same time, she found she couldnít turn her eyes away from the scene - for fear that something worse would happen if she looked away.

Surprisingly, one of the hands on her shoulders gentled, and she heard someone calling her name. "Taleah," said Xena, trying to wake the girl, "Taleah, wake up."

She awoke with a start, feeling the tears she had cried, both in her dream and in reality. "Xena?" she asked, and the warrior nodded. Taleah looked around, as if searching for the men and chains that had hurt her daughter. Finding them gone with her dream, she looked back to the warrior, and was glad to see understanding in her eyes.

Xena said nothing. She knew that Taleahís nightmare had not been about Argo, it had been about her daughter. The warrior had had enough dreams about her own child to recognize the anguish in the cries. She wished there was something she could do for the girl, but knew of nothing.

"It was the same," Taleah said, preparing to explain her nightmare to Xena.

"I know. You donít have to talk about it," Xena said, cursing herself for bringing the topic up and forcing the girl to tell her the day before. That memory had drudged up the nightmares, Xena knew, and just added one more thing for her to apologize to Taleah - and another way she felt she had failed.

"Xena," said Taleah, tentatively, as if afraid of a rebuff, "this is going to sound really strange, and you donít have to," Xena raised one eyebrow at this warning, but remained silent, "but would you just sit with me for a while?"

"Yeah," said Xena, softly. She sat next to Taleah, a gentle hand on her shoulder, while the girl remained lying down, trying to go back to sleep. It didnít take long for her breathing to steady, and Xena returned to her own bedroll, heart aching with her inability to help Taleah with her pain. But Xena knew there was nothing she could say to make it better - there was nothing any one could say.

Xena had to wake Taleah up once more from her nightmares, but it seemed to be the one that affected her the most. It had been about her daughter, Xena knew that, but it had obviously been worse than the others. The girl awoke soaked in a cold sweat, tears on her face, and her eyes wild with fear. Seeking comfort and reassurance anywhere, she had practically thrown herself into Xenaís arms, weeping uncontrollably.

The warriorís nature took over, and she talked softly to the girl, just holding her. It took a while, but Taleah stopped crying, and pulled away from Xena. Xena offered her the water skin, and Taleah took a couple sips, before handing it back to the warrior.

"Thanks," Taleah said, her voice still quivering slightly. She glanced over at the still sleeping bard, and had to smile a little. "I still didnít wake her," she remarked.

Xena shook her head. "No, she can sleep through just about anything." Then she turned her attention back to the matter at hand. "Taleah, is there anything I can doÖ?" she asked, her voice trailing off, not sure of how to finish her sentence.

"Yeah," answered Taleah, and Xena looked up, ready to help in whatever way.

"What?" asked Xena.

"Stop beating yourself up over this," she said, and surprise covered Xenaís face. "You forget, Iím good with feelings. Even if I wasnít, I could see this one," she said. "Xena, I appreciate your concern, I really do, but my nightmares are not your fault. Neither was my getting hurt."

"You knew that, huh?" she asked, smirking a bit.

Taleah nodded. "Yeah, I knew. Now, please, you have enough to worry about without me adding to your list," she said. "Donít blame yourself for my problems."

"Even if I caused them?" Xena asked.

"You didnít cause the nightmares, Xena. I hadnít had anyone to talk to in a long time, and you were there - you listened," she said.

"Yes," she said, "I listened, but I shouldnít have asked you those questions. They brought back the memories."

Taleah sighed lightly, seeing that she wouldnít be able to get anywhere with Xenaís guilt. "How about this?" she asked. "Letís make a promise. Any time any one of us needs something, the other will be there for her. That should make up for anyÖ mistakes," she finished, choosing her words carefully.

"What do you mean?" asked Xena, her brow furrowed. It was too late in the night for her to think about promises - they usually ended in trouble for her.

"I mean," said Taleah, patiently, "if I got in trouble, you would be there for me. Just the same, if you or Gabrielle got into troubleÖ or, needed my help," she said, and Xena smiled at her correction - there would always be trouble, "I would be there. No questions asked."

Xena thought about this for a moment. Trustworthy friend, reliable ally, formidable warriorÖ offering a promise to watch her back in a time of need, if she would do the same for her? "I promise," she said.

"I promise, too," said Taleah.

"What about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, gesturing to the still sleeping bard.

"Well, I can talk to her about it tomorrow, if youíd like. It could just be between you and I," she said, "as I doubt there will be a time when Iíll send for you that Gabrielle wonít come along."

Xena nodded. "All right, then. Just between us," she said. Then, she added, smiling, "Sis."

Taleah grinned. "In that case, good night, sis."

"Good night, Taleah," said Xena. Once the girl had fallen back to sleep, Xena muttered, "Sleep well." Turning in to her own bed roll, the warrior fell into a light sleep.

Xena was the first to awaken the next morning, and was glad that Taleah had slept peacefully through the rest of the night. Thinking of the conversation they had had the night before, Xena couldnít help but smile - the girl had seemed so wise, and so patient, that Xena had to remind herself that this girl was younger than she.

Taleah awoke a few minutes later, habitually stretching, and then regretting it as her ribs began saying bad names and dirty words to her. However, it felt reasonably good on the rest of her body. "Morning," she said, seeing that the warrior was already awake.

"Morning," Xena returned. Taleah made an attempt to sit up, and Xena moved to go to her side, but Taleah held up her hand, motioning for the warrior to stop. After pain flickered across her face for a few minutes, Taleah was able to push it down far enough to sit up. Leaning lightly against a tree, she grinned triumphantly at Xena, who had been watching.

"That wasnít so bad," Taleah lied, and then reached for her staff. Xena knew what she was going to do, and hand or no hand, she went to her side, in case she needed support. Wincing slightly as her legs protested at the movement, she rose slowly to her knees, and - leaning heavily on her staff - pushed herself upward with the strength of her right leg, deciding the left ankle wouldnít support her full weight just yet. That finished, she allowed Xena to check her ribs.

Gently, Xena probed with her fingers, and was pleased to find that one of the ribs was completely healed, and the other was very close behind. "Almost good as new," said Xena, and Taleah smiled.

"Told you I heal fast, when I have a chance to concentrate on my body," she said. Xena had to admit, even she was impressed by her capabilities. Not only were the ribs healing, but you could barely see the welts on her body from the whip, and her eye was completely healed. Removing the bandage, Xena saw that Taleahís leg wound looked much better, and decided to leave the bandage off.

Without warning, Taleah took a step forward with her left leg, and grimaced, but stayed upright. Trying a few more tentative steps, Taleah found that she had a very defined limp in her left leg, but was able to walk on it. Knowing it would hurt, but also knowing her ankle needed the exercise, she told Xena, "Iíll walk some today."

"Just take it easy, all right?" Xena asked. "If you get tired, just say something."

"Okay," said Taleah. "Iíll go ahead and mount Argo. You can wake her up, this time," she said, smiling. Xena shot her a look that said, ĎYeah, thanks!í, but broke out in a grin.

"Come on," Xena said, talking to the bard as Taleah slowly made her way over to Argo, "time to get up." Gabrielle moaned, and turned her back to Xena. "GabrielleÖ" Xena warned, her voice sounding very much like a low purr. When Gabrielle didnít respond, Xena gripped the blanket, and ripped it from the girlís body. With a yelp, Gabrielle awoke.

"Hey!" she exclaimed, shooting daggers at the blue-eyed, innocent looking warrior who loomed above her. "Not fair, Xena," she muttered. Xena just gave her an innocent smirk, folded the blanket, and loaded it on Argo. Finding Taleah already mounted - not to mention laughing at the scene, she waited for Gabrielle to collect and pack their things, and then they continued on their journey to the Amazon Village.

After a few peaceful hours on the trail, the serenity was interrupted by a group of five bandits.

"Give us your money, and maybe weíll let you live," the leader sneered, grinning a mouthful of ugly yellow teeth. Taleah noticed one of the men, recognized him as the man who had beat her and Argo, and gasped out loud.

Before Xena gave her smart remark, she heard Taleah gasp from atop Argo, and paused for a moment, following the girlís eyes. Seeing the man she was looking at, and placing his face with the one who had claimed Taleah had stolen his horse, her eyes narrowed.

"Iíve got a better idea," she said, frighteningly calm. "Get out of our way, and maybe weíll let you live." The men laughed, and, with a signal from their leader, charged the three women. Xena drew her sword, Gabrielle positioned her staff, and Taleah stayed on Argo, ready to help with her own staff.

Two men charged Xena, and two charged Gabrielle. That left one to sneak off and try to get Xena from behind - the man who had beaten Taleah. While the two women on the ground were preoccupied with their problems, Taleah was keeping a careful eye on the other. As he approached Xena, he didnít notice Argo obediently coming up behind him. With one swing of her staff, Taleah hit the man in the base of his neck, breaking his spine, and killing him.

He dropped to a heap on the ground, sword still clutched in his hand. Xena turned at the sound, leaving her previous two bandits to limp away, and noticed the dead man on the dirt next to her feet. Looking up at Taleah, knowing immediately that he was dead and why, she gave the girl a look that told her she had done the right thing.

Taleah, with the man not being her first kill - in self defense, was not really bothered by his death. She watched as Gabrielle dispatched the last two men, and then returned to where Xena, Argo, and Taleah were waiting. After checking them all for injuries, Xena took Argoís reins again, and led them slowly closer to their destination.

"Xena," said Taleah, as Xena walked silently ahead, "Iíll walk for a while now." Xena halted the horse, helped Taleah down, and then made sure she was okay. She walked much slower than Gabrielle or Xena, but the two waited patiently, and matched her pace. As much pain as she was in, Taleah insisted on walking the rest of the day.

By the time the women reached the campsite, just a little before dusk, Taleahís walking had greatly improved. She could almost keep up with Xenaís natural pace, and her ankle was used to the weight and motion. However, at the inviting sight of a large log, and the go-ahead from Xena, she sat down to rest for a few minutes.

"Iím going to check around," said Xena, returning from taking care of Argo. "Gabrielle, you can get the firewood."

"No, let me!" said Taleah, standing quickly. "I could use the exercise," she said, and smiled happily when Xena nodded.

"Then you can watch the camp," said Xena, to Gabrielle, who seemed quite content herself at not having to hunt for wood. Taleah went into one side of the forest, and Xena at the other. When they were gone, Gabrielle unpacked their things, and set up for dinner - which was bread, cheese, and an apple, seeing as Xena didnít want to hunt.

Xena walked around, doing a perimeter check. The woods were dense enough to hide in, yet clear enough to see through, and that pleased her. The floor seemed to be covered in pine needles and dried leaves, which meant that anyone trying to sneak up on them would fail - either Taleah or Xena was guaranteed to hear them.

As she finished her circular route, and prepared to turn back to camp, Xena heard a twig snap behind her. Spinning around quickly, and placing her hand on her sword, the warrior got ready to fight whoever it was. Imagine her surprise when a girl, not more than five or six years old, stared up at her with wide and frightened eyes.

The girl had dark brown hair, a little longer than her shoulders, and deep green eyes. Her face was gentle and young, with the innocent belief in all manís kindness, and the lack of worry. When she saw Xena spin around so quickly, it scared her, and she stumbled backwards, only to trip over her own feet and fall.

Xena immediately kneeled to be eye-level with the girl, lifted the child up, made sure she was all right, and then smiled. She was relieved when the girl returned the smile - she was no longer afraid of her. "Itís all right," said Xena, just in case, "I wonít hurt you. Whatís your name?"

"Sarah," the girl replied, looking directly into Xenaís eyes. Her voice was soft and gentle.

"Where are your parents?" Xena asked, wondering what a young girl like Sarah was doing wandering around in the woods, and knowing how worried her parents would be if they found her to be missing.

"I donít know where my mommy is," she said, "and I donít have a daddy. But Iím hungry." Sarah said this last statement with the innocence, and bluntness, of a child.

Xena smiled, and stood. "Well, letís get you something to eat, okay?" The girl nodded enthusiastically. Sensing that she had made a new friend, when Xena stood, she softly slipped her little hand into Xenaís large, callused one. The warrior did not remove the childís fingers, merely gave her hand a slight squeeze, and led her back to camp.

"Look what I found," Xena said, lightly, when Gabrielle came into view.

The surprise on her face was great, but it softened to adoration. "Hello," said Gabrielle. The child didnít seem to be in any trouble, or hurt, and Gabrielle was glad. She had heard rumors about a band of raiders lately.

The girl smiled at the woman, and noticed they had the almost the same color eyes. "Hello," she responded, politely. Gabrielle was about to say more, when Taleah returned.

"Hey, Xena," her voice rang out, and moments later her body appeared, "this is all I couldÖ find." Her voice trailed off as her eyes locked on the child, whose hand was still encased in Xenaís. Upon seeing the girl, Taleahís arms lost their hold on the small pile of twigs she had collected, and dropped them, forgotten, to the ground. Her hazel eyes widened, but her face was guarded. Then, she covered her mouth with her hand, and, despite the protests from her ankle, she dropped to her knees.

"Sarah?" she whispered, her eyes showing disbelief and hope and the same time, her stoic reserve threatening to crumble.

"Momma!" the girl shouted, releasing Xenaís hand, and ran full force into her motherís arms, nearly knocking her over. For a split second Taleah seemed stunned, but then she wrapped her arms around the girl, her ribs sending a dull ache through her body, but her arms nonetheless threatening to never let go.

For a full two minutes, mother and daughter embraced. Sarah repeated ĎMommaí over and over again into her motherís shoulder, and Taleah whispering terms of endearment to her little girl. "Oh, SarahÖ my babyÖ my love," were just some that Xena was able to understand. Meanwhile, Gabrielle looked on in shock, and Xena with mild amusement and joy.

Finally, when Taleah could stand the pain no longer, she was forced to pull away, and stand. She made sure that her daughterís hand was securely in her own, before turning to face her two friends. "Xena, Gabrielle," she said, looking to each of them in turn, "this is my daughter, Sarah."

"Daughter?" Gabrielle asked, in wonder.

"Yes," responded Taleah, "my daughter. Sarah," she asked, turning to her daughter, and leading her to the log so they could sit and talk, "what happened to your Uncle Tormis and Aunt Leah?" Xena was glad to see that Taleahís limp was barely noticeable.

"Some bad men came, and Aunt Leah went with me into the woods. Uncle Tormis stayed with the others, and Aunt Leah said he would come with us, but he didnít," she said, looking at her mother. "Then, more bad men followed us, and Aunt Leah told me to run away. She didnít come either," finished Sarah.

Taleah had tears in her eyes, from the news of the loss of her friends, but asked, "How long ago did your Aunt Leah leave you?"

Sarah scrunched up her face, concentrating hard. "Eight days," she said, positively, and gave a sharp nod; proud of herself for recalling the amount correctly. She expected her mother to be proud of her, too, but to her surprise, her mother seemed upset..

"Eight days!" Taleah exclaimed, and pulled her daughter into her lap, cradling her. "Iím sorry, baby. I should have looked for you," she apologized, tears running down her face at the idea of her daughter alone for more than a week.

Sarah, sensing her motherís distress, left her motherís lap, and stood on the log. Beginning to run her fingerís through Taleahís hair, she muttered, "Make Momma pretty."

Taleah rolled her eyes, but there was a huge grin on her face as she said, "Okay, sweetheart, you make Momma pretty." The girl began to braid her hair, and carefully separated each strand, until she was satisfied with the amount. Then, she started to meticulously intertwine the groups.

"She always does this whenever she thinks Iím sad," Taleah explained, to the amused faces of Xena and Gabrielle, who watched the whole scene with interest.

"Daughter?" Gabrielle repeated, recovering from her initial shock. "How old is she?"

"Iím almost five!" Sarah piped up, her eyes never leaving her project.

Gabrielle grinned. "When I was five, I had my own pony," she said.

"A pony! Mommy, I want a pony!" she said, dropping the incomplete braid to face her mother. Taleah shot Gabrielle a fierce look, but before she could explain to her daughter why she couldnít have a pony, there was a snort from the bushes. "My pony!" she shouted, taking off into the shrubs, running into the Palomino mare.

"I think sheís just adopted Argo," said Taleah, laughing along with Xena. Not able to see her daughter, Taleah immediately and instinctively walked into the small grassy area where Argo was grazing, and found Sarah. After having just found her, Taleah wasnít about to let her out of her sight for even a moment, unless Xena or Gabrielle was with her. The girl was petting the horseís flank, and hugging her leg, as that was as far as she could reach. Argo snorted, causing Sarah to giggle with delight.

"She likes me!" she said, in between giggles.

"Her name is Argo," said Taleah, patting the mare softly.

"ArÖ go. Argo," said Sarah, rolling the name around on her tongue. "Sheís pretty."

"Yes, she is," Taleah responded absentmindedly, checking Argoís flank for any trace of the wound. Finding not even the slightest scar, she smiled, and put her hand on her daughterís shoulder. "You hungry?" she asked, and Sarah nodded enthusiastically. "Well, letís get something to eat. I think Gabrielleís got dinner. You can come see Argo later, okay?"

"Okay," said Sarah, and walked back with her mother to the campsite. Her eyes lit up when she saw the bread and cheese that Gabrielle was holding, and she smiled widely when Gabrielle offered her a piece. "Thanks!" she said.

Looking up at Xena, she said, suddenly, "Youíre my momís friends?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle for a moment, and then said, "Yeah, we are."

"If my Aunt Leah and Uncle Tormis donít come, does that mean you are my new Aunt Xena?" she asked, innocently. Xena looked over Sarahís head to Taleah, who was sitting on the log, smiling. Taleah just nodded, and had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from laughing at the bewildered look on Xenaís face.

"Sure. I mean, I guess so," said Xena, slightly flustered at the awkward situation.

"And youíre my Aunt Gabrielle?" she asked. Gabrielle nodded. "I have two aunts? Yea!" she shouted, and ran up to Gabrielle and gave her a hug. When Gabrielle returned the gesture to the small child, Sarah ran up to Xena and did the same. While a little surprised, Xena also hugged her back.

"Would you like to hear a story?" Gabrielle offered, hoping it would put Sarah to sleep, seeing the girlís eyes droop. Sarah nodded, and left Xenaís side to sit next to Gabrielle. The bard began her story, and Taleah watched with motherly air about her, as if looking away would cause her little girl to disappear away from her again. Xena sharpened her sword, keeping an eye on the rest of her crew at the same time.

As the bedtime story ended, Taleah laid onto her blanket, and smiled when her daughter walked up beside her, and laid down with her head on her motherís lap. Absentmindedly stroking her hair, just for the contact, Taleah waited until her daughter had fallen asleep before speaking to Xena and Gabrielle, as they were sure to have more questions. At least, Gabrielle would.

"This is why you cried when I told you about Hope and Solan," were the first words from Gabrielleís mouth, as she walked over to sit beside Xena and Taleah.

Taleah nodded. "Yeah, sheís why. That story made me remember her, and I thought about how it was a possibility that I might never see her again. It was a good story, but thatís not why I was crying," she finished.

"You should have said something," said Gabrielle, gently.

"Gabrielle," said Taleah, just as gently and evenly; patient as ever, "thatís not the kind of thing I like to talk about. You understand, I know you do."

Gabrielle nodded, and then turned to Xena. "You didnít seem too surprised. You knew," she said, and Xena nodded with a little hesitation.

"Yes, but only because I asked Taleah about it," she said, a look to Taleah telling her not to protest. "Thatís when she started having nightmares."

"Speaking of which," said Taleah, causing Xena and Gabrielle to turn to her, "Iíd like to go to sleep now, if thatís all right. Sarahís already out for the night, and I should be, too." Xena and Gabrielle both nodded, said their good nights, and laid down on their own bedrolls. Taleah was soon asleep, cradling her daughter lovingly and gratefully in her arms. Mother and daughter slept peacefully through the entire night - not a single nightmare from any camper, Xena included.

Taleah was the first one to awaken the next morning, and smiled down at her daughter, thankful that it had not been a dream - her daughter was really there. Her smile turned into a smirk as she realized she was the only one up, even Xena was still asleep. Smoothly untangling herself from Sarahís grasp, Taleah got up and prepared breakfast. The smell awoke Gabrielle.

"Smells good," the bard murmured, opening her eyes to look at Taleah.

"Thanks," said Taleah, stirring the fire so the food would heat quickly. Gabrielle glanced over to where the still sleeping warrior lay.

"Is she all right?" Gabrielle asked, concerned. Usually Xena was the first one up, and if not, she was definitely up before the bard. Unless she was sickÖ Gabrielle made a move to wake Xena, when Taleah stopped her.

"Let her sleep, Gabrielle," she said. "Sheís fine, but I can tell this is the first solid nightís sleep sheís had in a long time. Am I right?" Gabrielle nodded, moving back to her own bedroll. "No nightmares, and she was even asleep quickly. Let her enjoy her rest."

Silently, Gabrielle packed her things, and waited patiently for breakfast to be served. Not long after, Sarah awoke.

"Mommy, youíre making breakfast!" she said, happily.

"Yeah. Keep quiet, Sarah. Xenaís still asleep," said Taleah, softly. The child looked to the peaceful warrior, then back to her mother, and nodded, putting a delicate finger to her lips. Taleah smiled, so did Gabrielle.

"Is it done?" asked Sarah a little while later, peering into the pot.

Taleah nodded. "Just about. Tell you what, why donít you go wake Xena, and tell her breakfast is ready?" she suggested. Sarah nodded, and walked over next to the warrior. Gabrielle started to protest, worried about how Xenaís instincts might kick in if she was startled, but Taleah reassured her. "Itís all right," she said. Taleah didnít seem to be worried, but Gabrielle kept a close eye on the two.

"Xena," said Sarah, "Mom says itís time to eat. Come on." Taking Xenaís hand into both of her little ones, Sarah gently patted the warriorís hand, still talking softly to her. "Time to get up, Aunt Xena," she said. Gabrielle giggled at the title.

Xena opened one eye when Gabrielle laughed. "Watch it, Aunt Gabrielle," she said, and sat up. "Morning, Sarah," she said.

"Morning! Momma made breakfast," she said, and tried to pull Xena to her feet. Xena allowed the girl to pull on her arm, and let Sarah help her to her feet - or at least, Sarah thought she did. "I got Xena up!" she said, walking over to where her mother was dishing out the breakfast.

Xena smiled. "Sheís gotten you up before?" she asked, and Taleah nodded.

"Yeah. Iíve told her not to startle anyone, especially warriors. She understands," said Taleah, beaming with pride. Her daughter smiled up at her, and Taleah tussled her hair, lovingly. "Here you go," she said, and handed her a bowl of warm porridge she had made with items from her bag. Sarah smiled, knowing the treat her mother had made, and ate ravenously.

Taleah handed Xena and Gabrielle their bowls, before sitting down with her own. "This is good!" Gabrielle complimented, and devoured the meal. Xena did the same, as did Taleah, and soon it was time for them to go.

"Where are we going?" Sarah asked, as Xena packed the last of their things onto Argo.

"Weíre going to see the Amazons," said Taleah, and her daughterís face brightened.

"Really? Amazons? Wow!" she said, smiling with excitement.

"Sarah, would you like to ride Argo?" asked Xena, and the girl nodded happily. Lifting the child up gently, Xena set her in the saddle, and told her to hold on to the saddle horn. Sarah obeyed, and laughed with delight when they began to walk, and Argo moved beneath her.

Taleah walked next to Argo, wanting to be near her daughter as much as possible. Xena led Argo by the reins, and Gabrielle walked on the other side of Argo, telling stories to the fascinated youngster.

"Can I walk now?" Sarah asked, looking down at her mother who nodded. Helping her down, Taleah set her daughter gently on the ground. Sarah walked, rather stiffly, next to Xena, slipping her hand in the warriorís once again. The cornerís of Xenaís mouth turned up in a smile at the gesture, and gave the small hand a gentle squeeze.

As the day passed quickly by, Sarah began stumbling over obstacles in the road, and Xenaís hold on the childís arm was often the only thing that kept her from falling. In one swift movement, surprising Gabrielle, Taleah, Sarah, and even herself, Xena picked the child up and held her. Balancing the girl with one arm, Xena continued to lead Argo with her free hand.

Sarah, glad for the chance to rest, curled up against the warrior, with her head tucked into the curve of her neck, and fell asleep in Xenaís arms. Gabrielle grinned at the sight.

"How cute," she commented, sweetly. Xena shot her a look, but then smiled. Taleah seemed a little uneasy about the whole thing, but remained silent. It wasnít much longer until Xena spotted a campsite, and declared they were stopping for the day. Gabrielle set up the camp, and Xena laid the still sleeping girl on her motherís bedroll. While Xena hunted, Gabrielle searched for firewood, and Taleah kept a watch over the campsite and her daughter.

After dinner, which Sarah slept through, Gabrielle joined the child in slumber. Taleah sat next to her daughter, but didnít sleep - she wanted to talk to Xena.

"Xena," she said, as the warrior returned from her perimeter check and sat next to her, "Iíve been thinking."

"Oh?" Xena coaxed, nonchalantly.

"Yeah," said Taleah. "You and Gabrielle donít have to escort me to the Amazon borders."

Xena turned and looked sharply at the girl. "Now, what brought that on?" she asked.

"I just mean, since Sarahís hereÖ" Taleah let her voice trail off, the rest left unspoken as she shrugged.

But Xena got the message. "Taleah, Sarah is not a problem. I know what youíre thinking, and yes, it is hard. It brings back memories about Solan, and that part of his life I missed, and all the years I wasnít there for him.

"It also gives me a chance to be there for Sarah. I enjoy being with her," said Xena, easing Taleahís worries. "And if you donít mind, Iíd like to extend that promise I made to Sarah, as well. If Sarah ever needs anything, just send for me. IÖ I kind of feel like a mother again," said Xena, hesitantly, and a little awkwardly.

Taleah looked Xena in the eye, serious. "I canít think of anyone else Iíd rather hear that from, Xena," she said, and put her hand on Xenaís arm, meaningfully.

"Thanks," said Xena, tears in her eyes. "Now," she said, taking a breath and clearing the sorrow from her face, "letís get some sleep, hm? Weíve still got about a dayís walk ahead of us." Xena knew it was useless to calculate the distance otherwise, since there was no possible way Argo could carry all four of them.

Taleah nodded, and laid down next to her daughter. Holding her close, the woman fell asleep. She didnít have a single nightmare, and awoke the next morning in exactly the same position. Carefully extracting herself from Sarahís iron-like grip, Taleah arose, and stretched her protesting muscles.

Sensing a presence behind her and her daughter, Taleah grabbed her staff, and whirled around. Seeing it was Xena, Taleah stopped her staff in mid-swing, managing not to hit the warrior.

"Nice reflexes," said Xena, raising an eyebrow. "Glad you recognized me."

Taleah grinned, and shrugged. "Sorry about that. Iím more on guard with her here," said Taleah, motioning to Sarah. The girl curled up into a tighter ball, and sighed contentedly in her sleep.

"I know," was all Xena said, but her eyes told Taleah she really understood. The blue color of them seemed to be a bit brighter, and Taleah guessed the warrior was thinking about her son. The fact that they stayed that way when she looked down at Sarah, told Taleah Xena meant every word she had said the night before - she looked at Sarah as her own child, and would protect her as such. Taleah suddenly felt very secure with the well-being of her daughter; if anything happened to her, she could count on Xena to be there for the girl.

"Should we wake them?" asked Taleah, glancing to the softly snoring bard, and snickered as Gabrielle smiled broadly in her sleep. "Maybe we should let her sleepÖ she seems to be having quite a dream," she said, unable to withhold her laughter any longer.

Xena looked at Gabrielle, and couldnít stop the smile that reached her face. Wondering what the bard was dreaming, Xena shrugged. "We need to get going, but I guess we could wait until everything else is ready to go," she said, and Taleah nodded.

The two worked quickly, and in just a few minutes, the only things left to pack were the bedrolls that Gabrielle and Sarah were sleeping on. "You wake Sarah," said Taleah, surprising Xena, "and Iíll wake Gabrielle." Xena seemed to consider the arrangement for a moment, and Taleah thought she might refuse, but the warrior nodded.

Kneeling next to Sarah, Xena whispered, "Time to get up, sleepyhead." Gently reaching over, she moved the girl so she was sitting up, and placed a hand on her back. The girl moaned, and opened sleepy eyes. "Come on, Sarah," she said, soothingly, "we get to see the Amazons today, remember?"

At this, the girl perked up, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Morning, Aunt Xena. Are we really going to see them today?" she asked, excited green eyes dancing at the possibility.

Xena nodded. "If everything goes all right, we should be there by this afternoon," she said, and smiled. Sufficiently awake, Sarah struggled to put away her bedroll. After help from Xena, the youngster was ready to go, but not before telling her mother how she had packed her bedroll all by herself.

"Mommy!" she said, walking next to her mother, who was patiently trying to wake her Aunt Gabrielle. "I packed up all by myself! Well," she added, with a glance to the tall dark form that was her Aunt Xena, "Aunt Xena helped, too."

Taleah smiled. "Good job, Sarah," she said. "You want to help me get your Aunt Gabrielle up?" Nodding, Sarah looked to her mother, questions in her eyes. If you canít do it, how am I supposed to? Sarah silently asked. Fighting a smile, Xena kneeled down next to them, and whispered something in Taleahís ear, and then Sarahís.

All three women, now grinning from ear to ear, reached a hand out to the bard, and began tickling her. With a shriek of surprise, Gabrielle was awake. Nearly leaping out of her bedroll, she exclaimed, "Hey! Okay, okay, Iím up!" Finally, the torture stopped.

"You," Gabrielle said, waggling a finger in the direction of the warrior, "put them up to this, didnít you? Oh, Iíll get you Xena, you just wait!" In response to the threat, Xena raised an eyebrow. "You just wait." When Gabrielleís voice dropped to a low growl, that the warrior - for some reason or another - found amusing, Xena laughed out loud.

Soon, all four were laughing. To Taleah, the giggles of her daughter were music to her ears. Taking her in her arms, and pulling her onto her lap, Taleah mercilessly tickled her daughter, until Taleah herself was laughing too hard to continue.

"Come on you two," said Xena, and Taleah looked up, only to find that Gabrielle, Xena, and Argo were waiting for them.

"Sorry," said Taleah, still smiling as she lifted Sarah from her lap.

"Thatís all right," said Gabrielle, also smiling. It had been a while since Xena had taken the time to relax, and despite the fact that she didnít like being ticked awake, it was good to see the warrior in such a good mood.

"Have you ever been to the Amazons?" asked Taleah, speaking to both Gabrielle and Xena, who nodded. Sarah was riding Argo, again, but Gabrielle had joined Xena and Taleah on their side of Argo. The bard walked next to Taleah, who was a little ways behind Xena, sensing that Xena knew the way better than she did.

"Yeah, we know them pretty well," answered Gabrielle. The bard had a strange grin on her face, but Taleah shrugged it off. "Weíve met them a few times."

"How are they?" asked Taleah, curious.

"Oh, theyíre nice. They stick to their customs, and are very adamant about their traditions," said Gabrielle, and she launched into a tale. She told of her first visit with the Amazons, however editing out the part where she became Princess. Xena, walking ahead, grinned to herself when she noticed the major part Gabrielle had left out. Apparently, she wanted Taleah to be surprised when she found out what rank Gabrielle held in the Amazonís royal family.

Sarah, who was listening intently, asked, "Do they wear feathers?"

Gabrielle smiled, and nodded. "Yes, and they climb through the trees," she said, and that got her going on another tale about the Amazons. Xena was amazed at how Gabrielle could cut out the main part of the story, not reveal she was Queen, and still make the story sound complete.

She really is a good bard, Xena thought. Then, speaking out loud, she said, "Thereís a shortcut up here. It should cut a few hours off our trip."

"And weíll get there even faster?" asked Sarah, from atop the Palomino mare.

"Yep," said Xena, and the girl giggled in anticipation.

Taleah and Gabrielle spent the rest of the day talking back and forth about the Amazons; Taleah asking questions, and Gabrielle answering them. Xena and Sarah listened quietly, Sarah absorbing the information and asking occasional questions of her own, Xena barely listening since she had heard it all numerous times before.

"I think I should show my skills to a warrior, before I go before the Queen," said Taleah, looking at Gabrielle. "I figured if a warrior didnít think I had anything to contribute to the Amazons, I wouldnít waste the Queenís time. What do you think?"

Gabrielle took a minute to think about her reply. Part of her nearly answered, "Youíve already shown your skills to the Queen," but she remembered Taleah didnít know. Out loud, she said, "I donít know, for sure. I guess that would be all right. Xena?"

Xena turned to look back at the two women, who were looking at her, anxiously awaiting her response. "I donít think it would hurt," was all she said, and shrugged, turning back to face the road so Taleah wouldnít see her smile. The girl was obviously nervous about seeing the Queen, and here she was talking with her like an old friend. That struck Xena as funny, and she chuckled, not realizing the others could hear her.

"Whatís so funny?" Gabrielle asked, quickening her pace to meet up with the warrior. Xena just swallowed her smile, and looked at Gabrielle, no expression on her face.

Glancing back, Xena saw that Taleah was occupied with her daughter, so she leaned over and whispered into Gabrielleís ear, "Sheís nervous about meeting the Queen, but she doesnít know sheís been talking with her for the past five hours!" Understanding the humor, Gabrielle also laughed.

"What are you two laughing about?" asked Taleah, tapping Gabrielle on the shoulder.

"Oh, nothing," replied the bard, her mind racing for an answer. "Xena just reminded me of a story to tell." Then, spinning a tale of Cupidís arrows gone awry, Gabrielle covered the real topic, and Taleah forgot to be suspicious. Ahead of them, Xena was smiling again at the bardís quick thinking.

Coming to the edge of Amazon Territory, Xena said, "Okay, Taleah, weíre here. Gabrielle and I will take Sarah around another way, and you can meet us there. If you want to show your skills to an Amazon, Iím sure one will be along shortly."

Nodding, Taleah gave her daughter a hug, a little apprehensive of letting her out of her sight. Then, remembering who she would be with, the woman relaxed. "Be good, Sarah. Iíll see you in a little bit," she said, and Sarah nodded.

"Okay, Momma," said Sarah, and Gabrielle took Argoís reins, leading the horse - who still carried the child - to another path. Xena pretended to go along, but as soon as she was sure Taleah couldnít see her, she took off into the forest which surrounded the border, as well as both sides of the path. Following Taleah was the safest thing, since some Amazons didnít react well to a challenge, and Xena didnít know how Taleah would approach the subject.

Taleah walked along, very much aware of her surroundings. Tall trees lined the path on either side, and Taleah could see how hiding in the trees would work to surprise an enemy. The leaves were so dense, it was nearly impossible to tell if someone was hiding in them. As she walked along, she shifted the position of her staff, and brought it into her left hand, and then back to her right. It had been a while since she had practiced, but the movements came to her with the ease of experience. Her hands almost worked the weapon by themselves.

Suddenly, an Amazon jumped from the trees, landing near Taleah. She had black hair, and a sword strapped to her back. By the look of the muscles in her arms, and the grace of her landing, Taleah guessed she knew her place as an Amazon.

"WhoÖ?" she began, but then recognized Taleahís face. "Oh, you again. Look, the Queenís not here."

"I know," said Taleah, "but Iíve heard sheís on her way. I was hoping I could show a warrior what I can do, and then find out whether or not I even have a chance." Almost reluctantly, the Amazon nodded. "Taleah," said Taleah, holding out her arm.

"Eponin," said the Amazon, briefly taking Taleahís arm. "Come on, you can come back to the village and Iíll find a warrior to fight you." She began walking back to the village, and Taleah fell into step beside to her.

"I canít fight you?" Taleah asked, her voice level and smooth.

"Listen," said Eponin, with a bragging tone to her voice. She sounded like she was talking to a dumb child, and Taleah didnít like that at all. "Iím the Weapons Master. You donít want to fight me."

"Why not?"

This got an exasperated sigh from Eponin. "Because you donít need to be fighting me. Thereís plenty of warriors back at the village to test your skills."

"But shouldnít I test my abilities against the best warrior?" asked Taleah, her voice hinting at disappointment.

"Iím not sure youíre good enough for that," said Eponin, bluntly.

Taleah visibly stiffened; even Xena, who was still walking through the forest, could see it. "And what gives you the right to make that decision?" she asked, now defending her honor.

"Youíre just a girl," said Eponin, tiredly, as if she was bored.

"Then you wouldnít mind fighting me? I mean," said Taleah, as she stopped in her tracks to face the Amazon, "if Iím not good enough for the best, then Iím surely not good enough for you to have anything to worry about."

No, Taleah, Xenaís mind screamed, donít challenge Eponin! She doesnít take well to losing, and I have no doubt that youíll give her a run for her money. Making sure her hand was on her Chakram, Xena continued to watch from a distance.

Eponinís eyes lessened to slits, and she eyed the girl with contempt. "Are you challenging me?"

"No, Iím defending myself. You think I canít fight you, just because Iím younger than you, and I donít like being judged like that," said Taleah, looking Eponin calmly in the face.

"Choose your weapon," snarled Eponin.

"Iíve got my weapon," said Taleah, gesturing with her staff, her voice never changing pitch. "You choose the conditions." She had learned from Gabrielleís stories that when you fought with an Amazon, there were certain conditions agreed upon; it was not just a simple barroom brawl.

"Full contact!" growled the Amazon, drawing her sword.

As soon as Xena heard this, she jumped into the trees above the two women. Knowing Eponinís temper, she knew she might have to jump between them, and hovering above them, it was easier to do than having to take a running leap.

Bringing her staff in front of her, Taleah faced Eponin. Taleah was not afraid, but she knew she couldnít meet the conditions. If the Amazon was as overconfident as she seemed, Taleah could seriously hurt her by fighting Ďfull contactí, and she knew it. Telling herself to think of it only as a practice session, Taleahís mind focused only on the sword in Eponinís hand, and she let her hands react to the thrusts.

Eponin swiped for Taleahís shoulder, but she blocked it with ease. Pivoting around on her foot, Eponin did a sweep for Taleahís foot, but her sword shook with the contact, when it hit solid wood instead of flesh. As she brought her sword back to her, feeling the tingling sensation in her hand, her eyes narrowed again.

Taleahís instincts were rebelling; they werenít used to being held back so forcefully. This woman was putting every ounce of her strength into the swings, and if Taleah missed, it could mean her death. She was supposed to fight back just as hard, but Taleahís moves were guarded. She was on the defensive, until something changed. She didnít want to hurt the Amazon, so she kept her trained reflexes in check.

Jabbing a well aimed thrust towards Taleahís middle, Eponin was surprised when the girlís staff knocked the sword away from itís target, and almost out of her hands. Deciding to end this, Eponin feinted with an overhead blow, before coming around on Taleahís side. She was infuriated when the move was blocked, and the girl remained uninjured.

Tired of so many close calls, and afraid she would lose control, Taleah easily swept Eponinís legs out from under her, and the Amazon landed hard on her back. She knelt, and held her staff at Eponinís neck for just a moment, before switching her staff to her left hand, and offering her right to the downed Amazon.

Snorting, Eponin turned her head, refusing the proffered hand. Sighing, Taleah stood, and turned from Eponin, planning to continue on to the village. Suddenly, she felt two hands on her back, and the next thing she knew, Eponin had pushed her face down into the dirt. Her staff rolled a few yards away, as the Amazon forced her to roll over onto her back.

"Not so good without your staff, are you?" sneered Eponin, her sword held in both hands. Taleah took the opportunity to lock her legs around the Amazonís ankle, and rolled back over onto her stomach, sending Eponin reeling.

Quickly getting to her feet, Taleah said, "Iím just as good, but itís over, Eponin."

"Full contact!" shouted Eponin, and leapt to her feet, sword in hand.

"Eponin," Taleah began, but was cut off when the Amazon made an attempt to run her sword through her side. Kicking the hilt, Taleah relieved Eponin of her sword. Almost immediately, Eponin drew her hands into fists, and prepared for hand-to-hand combat with Taleah.

Taleah, automatically bringing her right hand into a fist and her left hand open, placing her right close to her chest, and her left out in front of her, sighed again. Gabrielle was right, she thought, these Amazons donít give up!

As Eponin rained a series of blows with her fists, and Taleah blocked each one, Taleah was aware of the fury in the Amazonís eyes. Blocking a punch that had come precariously close to her head, Taleah ducked down, and attempted to sweep Eponinís feet again.

Eponin jumped over Taleahís leg, however, and grinned as Taleahís attempt failed. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Eponin landed a hard punch to the girlís back. That caused her to pause for a moment, and when she turned back around, Eponin got in a sidekick to the girlís still slightly bruised stomach.

Now on her knees, Taleah let her instincts take over, and she put all her strength into her fist, connecting solidly with Eponinís stomach. As the Amazon doubled over, Taleah stood, regaining her composure.

"Itís over, Eponin," said Taleah.

"No!" she shouted, and reached for her sword. Taleah glanced at her staff, which still lay on the ground, and decided it was too far away. Clenching her hands into fists again, she prepared to defend herself with all her might, when there was a black form between her and the advancing Eponin.

"Enough," the figure growled, facing Eponin, and Taleah recognized the person to be Xena. Eponin immediately backed off, sheathing her sword. Then Xena turned to Taleah, and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You all right?" she asked, blue eyes looking worried.

"Yeah," said Taleah, "Iím fine. You saw?"

"Everything," said Xena, and then she smiled. "You did very well." Then, to Eponin, she said, "Letís go." Taleah retrieved her staff, and followed the two into the village, where they were apparently preparing for their Queenís arrival.

"Whatís going on?" Taleah asked, not quite understanding why there were a bunch of Amazons lined up on either side of a hut, making a pathway.

"The Queenís hut," Xena replied. "She should be out soon."

"You mean sheís already here?" asked Taleah, and Xena nodded. "Whereís Sarah?" Putting a finger to her lips, Xena nodded at the hut, and Taleah watched as the door opened. Out stepped a woman in brown Amazon garb, looking every bit an Amazon Queen. Then, Taleah did a double take, and gasped as she realized she recognized the woman.

Xena grinned at Taleahís gasp. "Gabrielleís the Queen?" she asked, thunderstruck.

"Yes," Xena said, looking down at Eponin, who was bowing as Gabrielle made her way over to the women.

"Bow!" said Eponin, roughly, and hit the back of Taleahís knee, causing her to fall. Regaining her composure just as Gabrielle reached them, Taleah kneeled respectively, and was surprised to hear Gabrielleís gentle laughter.

"Get up, Taleah," she said, softly. "You donít have to bow to me. It kind of makes me uncomfortable, anyhow." Immediately, Taleah was on her feet.

"IÖ I didnít know," was all she could stutter.

"Told you I knew the Amazons," Gabrielle grinned, and winked at the still astonished girl.

Eponin looked up, only then rising to her feet. "You know this girl, my Queen?" she asked, obvious disgust on the word Ďgirlí.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, whose face told her everything she needed to know. "Yes, I know her. Sheís a good friend of mine. And as for you," she said, directly addressing Eponin, "I want to see you in my hut in ten minutes." Eponin nodded, and Gabrielle motioned for Xena and Taleah to follow her.

"Sarahís in my hut," said Gabrielle, sensing Taleahís worry, as they walked towards her hut.

With this news, Taleah relaxed. "Thank you, my Queen," said Taleah, a little awkwardly.

"Gabrielle is fine," said Gabrielle, smiling. "Not many people call me ĎQueení. Well, unless itís a serious situation."

Taleah nodded, and as Gabrielle opened the door, Sarah came rushing towards her. "Hi, baby!" said Taleah, scooping her daughter up into her arms. "Tell you what, why donít you go outside for a little while? Gabrielle and Mommy need to talk for a bit, okay?" Sarah nodded, and Taleah set her down, smiling with undisguised pride as the girl scampered out the door.

"Sheíll be all right out there, wonít she?" asked Taleah, suddenly worried that she had done something wrong.

"Oh, sheíll be fine," said Gabrielle, putting a hand on Taleahís arm. "Now, have a seat." Gesturing to a nearby chair, Taleah obeyed. Gabrielle also sat down, across from Taleah, but Xena just leaned against the wall, content to stand. "I want to know exactly what happened out there with Eponin," she said.

Taleah nodded, and began to tell Gabrielle everything. She left nothing out, telling her Queen every word and every action, and when she was done, Gabrielle sat in her chair with her mouth open.

"Are you okay?" asked Gabrielle, Taleahís health her first concern.

"Yes, my Queen," responded Taleah. She figured it was a fairly serious situation.

"You had to stop her?" Gabrielle asked, looking over at the lean warrior leaning nonchalantly against the wall.

"Yeah. Eponin was going to take another run at her, but I stepped in," said Xena, eyes narrowing again as she remembered how Eponinís temper had nearly killed her friend, and then grinned inwardly as she thought of how careful Taleah had been with her moves. The girl would make a great Amazon.

"Iíll speak with Eponin when she gets here. Now, " said Gabrielle, "about Sarah. If you donít mind my asking, whereís her father?"

Taleah took a breath, about to tell her story, when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," said Gabrielle, and Eponin stepped into the hut. Immediately taking a seat, she sat quietly. "Continue," said Gabrielle, speaking to Taleah.

Taleah repeated her story, just as she had told Xena, and when she was done, Gabrielle felt great respect for the woman. Keeping the child that had been borne from as horrible a situation as that must have been a big decision.

Having nothing more to say about that for the time being, Gabrielle turned her attention to Eponin. "I want youíre side of the story," said Gabrielle, an ever fair leader. Eponin told the tale, and Taleahís eyes widened with the accusation by Eponin that she had attacked her!

"Two days probation," was Gabrielleís immediate response, no hesitation as she knew Eponinís tendency to cover herself, even if it meant lying. "No border patrol, and no perimeter watch. Youíll take the midnight shift tonight, tomorrow night, and the next. Dismissed." Silently, Eponin left the hut. Alarm bells went off in Xenaís head, when she saw the evil smile Eponin had on her face, but she wanted to stay with Taleah and Gabrielle. She was also interested in Taleahís history, although she already knew some of what had happened.

Gabrielle started questioning Taleah about her past, and Taleah answered with no hesitation, and almost no emotion. Only a few times did she falter, but quickly regained her composure, and continued.

Outside, Eponin was searching for something. "Make a fool out of me, will you?" she muttered to herself. Finding the person she sought, Eponin approached the young girl.

"Hi," she said. "Iím Eponin."

"Iím Sarah," said the girl, smiling up at the woman. She certainly seemed nice enough, and Sarah liked the pretty feathers she wore.

"Iím a friend of your motherís," Eponin lied, and the girlís smile widened. "Sarah, do you know your daddy?"

"No," said Sarah, suddenly a little uneasy. Why was a friend of her motherís talking about her father when her mother almost never did?

"Did you know that your daddy didnít want you? He left your mother all alone, and she didnít want you either. You were just an accident. Do you know what an accident is?" asked Eponin, her voice so calm it was eerie and startling to the child.

When Sarah shook her head, and sniffled at the tears that threatened to fall, Eponin played her last card; the one meant for Taleah. "You ask your mother, sheíll tell you," she said. Eponin watched as the child walked numbly to the hut, and opened the door. Smiling to herself, she sat down on a nearby stump, and wondered what Taleah would doÖ

As soon as Sarah walked in, Taleah knew something was wrong. "Sarah, whatís wrong?" she asked, putting a hand out to her daughter, who took it with both of hers.

"Mommy, whatís an accident?" she asked, looking into her motherís eyes.

"An accident?" repeated Taleah, and Sarah nodded. "Itís when something happens that you werenít expecting."

"Is it bad?" asked Sarah, sniffling.

"It can be," said Taleah. "Why?"

"I was an accident!" she bawled, the tears coming non-stop. "You didnít want me! My daddy left me!"

Gathering her daughter into her arms, Taleah held her. "What?! No, thatís not true, sweetheart. Mommy loves you. Iíll always love you, and I thank the Gods every day they gave you to me," she said, hugging Sarah tightly. "Who told you you were an accident?" When her daughter said nothing, Taleah set Sarah on the floor and looked her in the eye. "Who told you?" she repeated, still speaking softly, but firmly.

"Eponin," she said, sniffling as she tried to stop crying.

Taleah was up and out the door, staff forgotten in her haste, before Xena had a chance to stop her. She strode quickly up to Eponin, grabbed her by the straps of her Amazon garb, and slammed her up against a nearby tree.

"What did you tell her?!" she demanded. Although the Amazon was taller than Taleah, Eponin was cowering slightly under the girlís fiery gaze.

"The truth," was all Eponin muttered.

As Xena approached, even she had to flinch. She had never seen Taleah in full blown anger, and hoped to never see it again. Her hands were clenched so tightly that her knuckles were white, and the muscles in her back were straining as she held Eponin, nearly lifting her off the ground. "Taleah," she said, putting a hand on the girlís shoulder.

Taleah shrugged Xena off. "Iíll handle this," she said, gruffly. "You had no right!" she screamed, her attention back to Eponin.

Eponin didnít answer, and was glad when Gabrielle said, "Taleah, release her." Hesitantly, Taleah let go, and stepped back a few paces, still seething. Vaguely, the back of her mind acknowledged that there was another Amazon standing next to Gabrielle, but she was too upset to take any further notice.

"Eponin," the Queen said, also clearly angry, "you need time to think about how you control your temper. You will stay in your hut, with guards posted, until I say otherwise."

"And if it should happen that our Queen leaves before your punishment is sufficient, you will remain until you receive my direct permission," the blonde Amazon added. "Now go." Eponin walked off, head hung, to her hut.

"Taleah," Xena said, again, and Taleah turned to her.

"Iím sorry, Xena," she began, but stopped when Xena held up a hand.

"Donít worry about it. Taleah, this is Ephiny, the Queenís Regent. Ephiny, this is Taleah, our newest Amazon," said Xena.

As she reached out to shake the Regentís hand, Taleah looked over at her Queen. "My Queen?" she questioned, upon hearing that she was an Amazon.

"Yes, Taleah," said Gabrielle. "You are hereby promoted to Weapons Master."

Taleah, respective, bowed quickly, and then rose. "Thank you, Gabrielle," she said, smiling. "But what about Eponin? Wasnít she the Weapons Master?"

"Thatís true, but we need someone with patience to teach the warriors," said Gabrielle. "That would be you."

"Taleah," said Ephiny, "youíve saved the Queenís life. The entire Amazon village would love to have you with us."

"Itís an honor, believe me," said Taleah, still grinning. Suddenly, her smile faded. "Howís Sarah?" she asked, looking towards Xena. To her surprise, Ephiny answered her.

"Sheís fine. Sheís in the Queenís hut playing with my son, Xenon," said the Amazon, smiling at the woman, who was obviously relieved.

"Thereís a celebration planned in your honor," said Gabrielle, and Taleah looked absolutely dumbfounded.

"MÖMy honor?" she said, flustered.

"You saved the Queen, and youíre the new Weapons Master," said Xena, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Itís only right that you give the rest of the Amazons a chance to meet you." Taleah nodded, and then made her way to the Queenís hut to talk to her daughter, while Ephiny talked with Gabrielle about the events concerning the newest edition to the Amazon family.

The feast that night, in Taleahís honor, was a great one. There was dancing, and eating, and drinking, and lots of new people to meet. All the Amazons were there, minus three: Eponin, of course, and the two guards posted outside her hut. (She remained in her hut, sulking, for nearly a week and a half, before Ephiny decided she had been isolated enough.)

Gabrielle told the story of how Taleah had saved her life, and of all the great moves she knew. By the time their Queen was finished, half the Amazons were lined up to speak with this woman, who seemed so outstanding, they couldnít wait to learn from her, and find out if it was really true. Taleah spent the entire night making new friends, and relating her tales to all who wanted to listen. By the time the night was out, Taleah had many women lined up for a training session with her the next morning.

The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle got ready to leave at dawn. Most other Amazons were asleep, sleeping off a hangover - Taleah found out that Amazons almost never turned down a challenge to drink each other under the table.

As Xena slung the last saddlebag over Argoís back, she felt a hand tug on her skirt. "Aunt Xena?" she heard a quiet voice ask, and looked down at the child her had her attention.

"What is it, Sarah?" she asked, patiently, kneeling to face her. The girl had, luckily, gotten over the scare from the day before, caused by Eponin. She didnít seem to be bothered by it in the slightest, and Xena was relieved. Had Eponin done any serious damage to the girlís emotional state, Taleah would have been devastated, as well as infuriated.

"Are you leaving?" she asked.

"Yes, Gabrielle and I have to go now," said the warrior, gently.

"Will you come visit?" asked the child, with pleading green eyes.

"I promise," she said, and hugged the child to her. "You be good, okay? Listen to your mother?" Sarah nodded, and clung tightly to her adopted aunt. Looking in the girlís eyes, Xena saw tears threatening to fall. Putting a gentle hand on the girlís face, Xena smiled, trying to comfort the child.

Sarah smiled suddenly, and gave Xena a quick kiss on the cheek. "You be good, too," she said, causing Xena to break out into a large grin. "Whereís Aunt Gabrielle?" she asked, pulling away from the warrior, to search the stable.

"Right here," said Gabrielle, and Sarah ran to her. The bard enveloped the girl in a hug.

"Bye, Aunt Gabrielle," said Sarah, and gave Gabrielle a peck on the cheek, too. Then, remembering Argo, Sarah threw her arms around the mareís leg, and hugged her for all she was worth. "You be good, Argo," she whispered, and laughed as the mare playfully nibbled on her hair.

"Bye, Sarah," said Xena, and Gabrielle echoed. "Whereís your mother?" the warrior asked.

"Practicing," came the reply. Then, waving, Sarah left to go see Xenon, her new friend. The two waved to the child, and Xena and Gabrielle walked over to the field, only to find Taleah and a dozen or so Amazons sparring. Taleah was teaching them some of her moves, and was in the process of explaining to them why she kneeled when she held a staff on someone.

Seeing Gabrielle and Xena, Taleah called a halt. "Leaving so soon?" she questioned, and Xena nodded.

"What are you doing up so early?" the warrior asked, smiling.

"Hey, these guys got me up at dawn, begging me to teach them some of the moves that they heard from their Queen," said Taleah, looking towards Gabrielle, who was grinning.

"Sheís good," some of the Amazons said, and the rest of them nodded. While the session was paused, they took time to compare bruises, and telling each other what each wound had taught them. Taleah was careful not to hurt the girls too badly, but some got careless, and she had to get them to pay attention to what they were doing.

Taleah beamed at the praise. "See you soon," said Taleah, bowing quickly before returning to the fight. She lightly tapped an Amazon who had tried to sneak up on her, scolding her gently at the attempt, and then showing her how to improve. Gabrielle knew she had made the right choice, and she felt a little better about the safety of her friends as she left..

Xena mounted Argo, reaching a hand down and pulling Gabrielle up behind her. They rode out of Amazon Territory, both noticing how quiet the forest seemed to be. Eponin was not there to patrol it, and Ephiny was too busy dealing with her to see them to the border. They were alone as far as Gabrielle could tell, and yet she waited until they were past the border to talk. She knew there were other Amazons watching out for their Queen in the trees, she just couldnít see them.

"Do you think Sarah will be all right?" asked Gabrielle, who had been too busy with Eponin to hear any news on the childís reaction to Eponinís cruelty. She only knew that Sarah had seemed to be okay when she gave her a hug.

"I donít know," said Xena. "Sheís got an Aunt Xena and an Aunt Gabrielle. What do you think?" she asked, chuckling.

Gabrielle laughed. "Well, sheís sure to be well protected!" she said, and they rode off, leaving a very busy Taleah to fill some pretty big shoes, and try to live up to the reputation the Queen had set for her.

 


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